Performing Arts: Dance
June 30, 2017
There should never be reason to explain every piece on a program, barring some logistical necessity, which Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company had, as the entire program order had been jumbled. The introductions of each piece went on, however, to include their already printed program notes plus bonus expounding, limiting viewer interpretive freedom, and suggesting a subtler secondary sense of compensation for some self-perceived low quality of movement making.

Said sense became more apparent in disproportionate fanciness in non-dance elements. At the Martha Graham Studio Theater at Westbeth, lighting was used to a distracting degree. Space Oddityand Calligraffiti Variations made extensive use of a horizontal panel of light upstage that may or may not have had dancers in it while Bamboo Rap felt the need to spot light every dancer in the cavernous, but still modest black box theatre, which ultimately framed such choices as gratuitously grandiose.

Nai-Ni Chen’s movement vocabulary is an athletic, homogenous blend of influences from martial arts and contemporary ballet. Often even in dynamic, had just the music been jumbled and the pieces left the same, nothing might have felt amiss. Spatially, Chen shows considerably more intrigue, employing grid configurations, most developed in Calligraffii’s opening tableau. Three dancers phase into a myriad of triangular relationships, every movement clearly affecting neighboring bodies, as though tethered in a web. Sections being neither continuous nor in a purely block construction, transitions become more interesting to observe than the actual material they frame.

Some pieces begin with a compelling concept, but lack thorough physical research. Uncharted intends to comment on human migration, but insists on avoiding specific contexts. Central motifs include running in place (presumably to a new land) and reaching (presumably to the old land). Calligraffiti is inspired by the initial encounter with graffiti by one with an extensive familiarity in calligraphy. A projector displays examples of both forms and how uncannily similar they can be. Physically, Chen can’t seem to get past immediate associations of traditionalism and urbanism. Soft lyrical movement accompanies calligraphy while graffiti projections are met with an instant jump to sharper hip-hoppish movement, setting up a tense dichotomy between the forms as if the piece, intended to be a dialogue, were a battle for superiority in which calligraphy wins because it happens to be the last slide.

Immune to the aforementioned habits was Earth, about nothing more than that. It begins rather literally, rolling child’s poses signifying boulders, slowly countered with comparatively abstract gesture – an arm, upwardly curved like an elegant shovel. The piece begins in a mode that finds people on earth, but as physical dynamics are more deeply mined to touch on clay’s malleability, dirt’s flimsiness, mud’s thickness, and stone’s brittle conglomerations in spatial relationships connoting plate tectonics, people become instead of earth in a demonstration of actual fluidity in solidity.

Nai-Ni’s work, largely fixated on literalism, shines when representing something concrete. Abstract concepts, by definition, cannot be literally interpreted; as such, attempts at literal representations of ideas lacking context or point of view are guaranteed to be vague. Calligraffiti is never physically clear if it’s embodying handwritten forms or their cultural associations. Uncharted is a drama with no plot. Earth, however, soars in its objective handling of something tangible, generating infinite semiotic possibility for those watching.
EYE ON THE ARTS< NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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